For a possible $5 million gain -- one-quarter of 1 percent of the city's $2 billion budget -- Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke is willing to set back regionalism, annoy potential allies in the suburbs and unintentionally fuel the most negative perceptions about city government.
Is that really worth $5 million?
That's roughly the amount Mayor Schmoke said city coffers eventually would gain if all city employees were required to live in Baltimore as a condition of employment. The mayor has ordered that, as of July 1, any new hire would have to agree to move into the city within a year. The policy would not affect the current 24,000-plus employees, about a third of whom live in the suburbs.
The idea immediately came in for criticism, from several members of the General Assembly to Governor William Donald Schaefer. For good reason.
The city just emerged from a successful legislative session in Annapolis with the biggest plum on the tree: $100 million to expand the Convention Center. The argument that helped win the money was that what helps the city helps the region, and vice versa. A residency requirement for all employees, a policy held by no other area jurisdiction, sends the opposite message.
This restriction also casts the city and its government in a negative light. Voters have said loud and clear they want government's role as job-creator to be greatly diminished; let the private sector make jobs. In fact, the proposed city budget cuts, not adds, 350 positions, so what's the point of this. And if government does have to hire, the public wants it to tap the most qualified candidates.
It's not surprising that several City Council members support the change. The same members who felt it would be political suicide to raise $4 million by increasing the piggyback income tax a couple of cents favor the "painless" concept of raising that amount by forcing people to live in the city who might not even be in the state yet.
What's perverse in all this is that at current attrition rates, it would take the city 25 years to hire enough new employees to reach the $5 million figure the mayor used to justify this move.
Several cities around the country do have residency requirements; some have had them 20 years. But that doesn't make it the right thing for Baltimore to do, particularly at a time when the city's political might is more tenuous and its employment prospects are dim.
For every dollar the city gains this way, it may lose a dollar from county legislators less apt to cooperate come budget time. And for every resident the policy gains, it sounds a sour note about the city's livability to other Marylanders.
This edict is Mayor Schmoke's Berlin Wall, and it ought to be torn down before it's even erected.